Gamanungku – Ochre

Story by Ruth Nalmakarra, Senior Liyagawumirr/ Garrawurra women, Yurrwi (Milingimbi)

Before doing painting there are several things we must think about. First we the “Mindji” (the clan design), then what traditional materials we are using; bark, spear, Larrakitj (hollow log), Gunga (pandanus), Bulgurr (Karrajong String), Kakadu plum (natural adhesive), Dharpa, (carving wood) and which Gamanungku (colour) we need to collect Buthalak, Miku (red), Radjpa (iridescent red), Watharr (white), Mul (black). Gamanungku is the word for a sacred design. Gamanungku is also a word for white ochre (Watharr) and all the other colours that we use to paint with.

When we harvest the materials on the islands and in the mangrove or bush, we dig Gamanungku from under the beach sand in the salt water, on a low tide as clay or Gunda (rock). At the same time we hunt for Ragutha (mudmussel) and Nyoka (mud crab). It’s usually in the clean salt water. In some places we get the Gunda from the top of the beach.

When we harvest the Gamanungku from the beach sometimes it is soft whenwe find it and sometimes it is rough. When it is rough we have to grind it on a stone to make it soft before we put it on our body or painting.

In my clan, Garrawurra, we call our body paint after the Dhuwa catfish, Djirritjirri. Djirritjirri is a stripy design. We also make a Bowata (bush turkey) design that has a lot of Watharr. The Bowata design always has red, yellow and white, but is mostly white. This design is used at the end of our Ngarra (cleansing) ceremony on senior men and women.

When we cover people with Watharr, it is for Bapurru (funeral), cleansing and healing. Old people paint themselves with Gamanungku or Watharr when they are sick or grieving. We do this and we eat it as a medicine when we have a sore stomach.

We all share Watharr between clans. It is of the Dhuwa moiety but we all use it in our ceremony and painting. We are still using this Gamanungku today – there is always Ngarra (ceremony), Bapurru (funeral), Dhapi (initiation) happening in our community. These ceremonies tell us who we are and where we come from. Gamanungku is part of our story, connection to country and our identity. Our old people showed us these Gamanungku and ceremonies to keep our knowledge strong so that we can keep going and looking after the next generations to come.

Transcribed by Chris Durkin, Coordinator, Milingimbi Art and Culture